Autodidacticism: How You Like Them Apples?

Feb 27, 2014

He was educated in his father’s library. Her uncle kept a large collection books which she read during the eight winters she passed in Scotland. And so on and so forth…

Anyone who has so much as glanced over the brief biographies which preface Penguin Classics editions of books originally published in the 18th and 19th centuries has surely encountered such lines. Who does not find this kind of claim inspiring? Or perhaps a little embarrassing, as well?  I still owe thirty stacks of high society to the federal government for their generosity over the last fifteen years in helping me secure a baccalaureate, and I am grateful, truly I am, and yet when I see Jean-Jacques Rousseau lounging on Madame de Warens’ banquette, a stack of her books beside him like a bowl of peeled grapes, my gratitude smirks just a little. When I see Mary Shelley escaping into her fathers’ copy of Paradise Lost or Plutarch while marooned in the meatpacking district of London while yet a little girl, I think of all the libraries which have always been open to me and how little often I used them while young. The autodidact is a fearsome figure, and the world was formerly full of them; as books became cheap, and then cities grew, the poor learned to read, the Western world came to understand the glistening white batholith of truth which hums menacingly beneath glibly tossed off maxims like “Knowledge is power” or “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The autodidact— the self-learner, the self-disciplined, the righteously power-hungry— well, they do it for love.

You might recall the argument between Harvard janitor Will Hunting and the townie stooge Clark in Gus Van Sant’s remarkable Good Will Hunting. While both fellows try to impress the same girl, they get into an intellectual spitting contest about who knows more about pre-Revolutionary economics.

Clark: I was just hoping you might give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the southern colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities, especially in the southern colonies, could be most aptly described as agrarian pre-capitalist.

Will: Of course that's your contention. You're a first-year grad student; you just got finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison probably. You're gonna be convinced of that 'till next month when you get to James Lemon. Then you're going to be talking about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist way back in 1740. That's gonna last until next year; you're gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin' about, you know, the pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.

Clark: Well, as a matter of fact, I won't, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social...

Will: "Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth"? You got that from Vickers' "Work in Essex County," page 98, right? Yeah, I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or do you, is that your thing, you come into a bar, read some obscure passage and then pretend - you pawn it off as your own, as your own idea just to impress some girls, embarrass my friend?

See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you're gonna start doin' some thinkin' on your own and you're going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don't do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a f____g education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!

Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree. And you'll be servin' my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.

Will: That may be, but at least I won't be unoriginal. But I mean, if you have a problem with that, I mean, we could just step outside - we could figure it out.

Clark: No, man, there's no problem. It's cool.

Will Hunting is a great picture of an autodidact. Van Sant never shows us Will studying, but we do see him tinkering around on math chalk boards after hours, solving problems no one else cares about. We get the sense that at some point, during all those hours of pushing a broom around, he realized anyone could read the books for free. Clark wants a good education so he can take the Escalade to Tahoe for the weekend; Will comes from a neighborhood in Boston as lifeless, immobile as an idol of Mars and his life is a cycle of violence, abuse and sophistry. Will could care less about skiing. He does not want to be pushed around. He does not want to be lied to anymore.  

I was offered a classical education, but I largely declined it. In high school, I was no scoffer, but I was settled in my opinions and hated to read. The Odyssey was taught, Moby Dick was taught… although I enjoyed gossip and pop music and aimlessly wondering from one friend’s house to the next. After high school, I learned to argue, to craft a well-turned phrase. I started writing short fiction, although I was not much of a reader. Submitting myself to the craft of storytelling, which I loved, taught me a few important truths about the life of God, about human motivation and fear; I studied dialog and learned to talk properly and say interesting things. In the two years after I moved out of my parent’s house, I rented more than seven hundred movies from a local video store, and occasionally I watched something of value. I revisited The Remains of the Day for the first time since I was young and found the quiet, contemplative, solitudinous life of Mr. Stevens deeply attractive. Stevens, the silent butler who spent his evenings talking with a gorgeous old woman by a fire or reading books to "improve his vocabulary," and yet in that key scene, enticing Ms Kenton to a kissable distance so she might playfully, dangerously pry a hidden title from his hand ... nothing of it was like my life, but it haunted me, because the books seemed so needless. Anthony Hopkins played Stevens like a velociraptor in a tuxedo, sleeking around the house, disappearing through walls... and yet he liked his books. 

In college, I studied English and took a number of composition classes, although I was never required to read great books. Huck Finn was assigned twice. I read it neither time. I passed. No one had ever sold me on the value of reading, although I think I had not received the invitation with a willing heart. I was offered a job teaching a short fiction elective for two hours a week at a fledgling private school before I graduated college, and took the job, but won some success and was asked to teach a history class the following year, as well.

There is a moment in Sideways, Alexander Payne’s terrible paean to oenophiles, when two characters discuss the wine that “did it” for them— the wine that made them see wine as something other than a mildly intoxicating beverage served in a stemmed glass at the kind of restaurant which used tablecloths. They speak of the wine that perplexed them, defied them and finally deified them. In the same way, while teaching the history class at that fledgling private school, I found the text that “did it” for me, the text that would ultimately win me over to classicism, to old books, to hours in the library, to the expansion of the soul— a book of such astonishing claims, such profound professions of truth and unsettling declamations of human nature that I yet live in its awe. It was neither Cicero nor Cervantes nor Plato. Rather, that distinguished title was History of the World in Christian Perspective, published by A Beka books.

This was to be my second spin round the ballroom with the History; we danced a decade earlier when I was granted admittance into A Beka’s video home school akadēmos. Were there bottled vintages of anti-Catholic vitriol, textbook editor Jerry Combee would certainly rank as one of the world’s clumsiest, most undiversified, and yet well-stocked sommeliers. As a seventh grader, homeschooled and frequently unsupervised, I was more often interested in seeing how much cable television I could watch between school videos, but as an adult who had written more than a thousand pages of fiction, I could not but pause in scandal at claims like, “The Middle Ages were brutal times, and both men and women alike were brutal people. They rarely bathed, had terrible table manners, and drank considerable amounts of intoxicating beverages.” The pope was presented as a man who sharpened his teeth every evening for the more ready consumption of puppies, and “the chains of the Medieval Age fell” from Western Man no sooner than Martin Luther delivered his speech at Worms.

While I had been raised to uncritically dismiss Catholicism, and found it easy to do on a host of fronts ranging from the Inquisition to the Crusades (quite the range, I know), time and again, History of the World in Christian Perspective described a human race, a social dynamic, a Western prejudice which seemed as alien, illogical, inhumane and plain daffy as anything found in, say, Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. I recoiled. I fought. I spent my weeks outside of class scouring history books for proof Combee’s History was bunk, although that scouring positively took up minutes of my time. Like Will Hunting, my paycheck was the same whether I taught Combee’s benighted caca as truth or whether I photocopied pages from Peter Brown articles, cross-examined the text and laughed derisively over these “terrible table manners.” Like Will, I did not want to be pushed around. I did not want to be lied to. I started spending money on books. I would prove the Medievals were truly human.

Ironically, I finished my college education around the time I took up a genuine interest in reading and found a desire to make everyone and everything I studied humane, reasonable, sympathetic, largely in revolt against Combee. After I finished college, I read Plato and Augustine, Homer and Hesiod, Rousseau and Burke. While some readers might feel I am giving short shrift to my better high school teachers in claiming as much, in some slight, flickering sense of the word, I would claim myself an autodidact. I did not begin reading with a tabula rasa, but it was a point in my life when I recognized that nearly all of my dogmatic opinions about God, government, aesthetics, morality and religiosity were untested and so unfounded. When I finally read Plato, I read him openly, without a desire to defeat him or master him. I read Augustine the same way, and Homer and Burke and so forth. No teacher asked me to critique these thinkers, and no flaw in their reasoning was commended by an unimpressed instructor. I was not directed toward the salient, significant passages of The Republic, and so I read the whole book as though each page might contain gold.

This is the strength of autodidacticism; it is a kind of beginners luck enjoyed not with a game, but a book, and not just once, but over and over again. The rules of a book are unknown, undogmatized, and so the book has secrets and mysteries. In the same way it is possible for a dramatist to overact, it is possible for a teacher to overteach a book— to predestine the mysteries the students will solve, to program them to love this character, to predetermine the kinds of questions they are capable of asking. No autodidact will overteach himself a book, though.

Most books taught in a great books program have reputations. I have found it immensely helpful to ask students what they want to learn from Plato’s Republic, or the City of God, or Paradise Lost, before they read even the first word. Often, they will have no questions. Don’t accept that. Describe the book until questions emerge. Have students flip through the table of contents, look at the illustrations, read random passages from the middle, read the one page biography of the author on the inside flap, pass out quotations about the book… don’t ask students to begin reading a book about which they have no questions, no desires, no mysteries. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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